“You don’t understand, it can’t be a fake!”
Professor Theodore Clepsiphron took a thin serviette from the dispenser in a middle of the table and began cleaning his glasses. Robin, sitting opposite, ignored the steady rumble of noise in the bar and, without blinking, watched the man in front of him in silence.
“The probability is very high, Mr Fowles,” he placed the small brown glasses back on his sun-kissed nose, “after all, the Hermes Polytropos is more a figure of legend than of fact.”
A wall of hot air came in from the east and made Robin’s old cotton shirt stick to his chest. The Taberna Arcadia was a two-story building that had become Athens’ favourite spot for people with light wallets and thick skin. The bartender was welcoming enough in a “I’m not here to make friends” kind of way but the clientele were construction and dock workers who had long since become numb to the charms of the Acropolis, which dominated the view from the roof terrace.
“Look, Professor Clepsi- Clupsim- Clam-“
“Clepsiphron,” the professor added with a strong Greek accent and a smile that swept the breadth of his boyish face.
“Right. Look, the statue can’t be a fake! I’ve spent nearly my whole bloody life looking for it and found it exactly where all the clues led me. Exactly!”
“Clues?” The Professor crooned, “You talk as if somebody wanted you to find it.”
“Not somebody, Professor. Fate herself.”
The Professor looked down at the expensive-looking case on the table. It was open and inside, tailor-made black prisms of soft foam hugged and protected every contour of a cream-coloured statue of no taller than a bottle of beer.
“Many men have read their fates in falling stars and floating leaves. Personally, I do not subscribe to the idea that an inanimate object can decide the course of life and, if you have come to me with this problem …” The Professor eased his soft, tanned fingers along the sides of the small god and the black foam gave way to his touch, “… then I assume that the supposed magical properties of the Hermes Polytropos have not manifested?”
A calloused and scarred hand shot across the small metal table and landed one of its fingers lightly, but protectively, on the Professor’s crisp white sleeve. His left eyebrow rose above the rim of his glasses.
“Professor, I’ve used up 30 years of my life chasing this thing down and I’m not about to give up on it now. I just have to figure out how it works. How it brings you what you really desire.”
“And what is it you desire, Mr Fowles?”
“I … I don’t even know anymore.”
Robin retrieved his outstretched hand and the Professor admired its scarred beauty. It was the hand of a brawler, not an archaeologist, and when it returned to rubbing the condensation off Robin’s bottle of cold beer, the Professor nodded and eased the statue out of its safe bed.
It was of an indeterminate age, he said, but even the local barflies could see that it was ancient. They hadn’t stopped staring at it since Robin opened the case and showed it to the world-renowned authenticator of antiquities sitting opposite him.
Professor Clepsiphron turned the object in his hands, peering at it through the small round lenses perched atop his straight nose. The statue certainly looked like Hermes Polytropos and it was, frankly, the ugliest thing Robin had ever made it his business to find. It had a normal enough body — if a little pudgy for a god — but it was the head that was most unsettling. In a state of mad exuberance the sculptor had given it 8 mouths, 8 noses and 16 eyes, which were placed at even intervals all around its small head. Due to the head’s size, the features merged too close to each other, giving the sensation that it was spinning at an alarming speed.
From the Professor’s resumé, Robin thought he must have been over 60 but his skin was like polished bronze and his eyes were as keen as those of a teenager planning to raid his parents’ wine cellar. Robin put it all down to ‘Greek Genetics’, something he had come to admire and envy during his 3-month-long stay in the Ionian Islands. The Professor placed the statue gently on the table between them and looked directly, uncomfortably, into Robin’s eyes.
“That was a curious expression you used just now, Mr Fowles. Tell me, why is it you said you’d ‘used up 30 years of your life’?”
“Because it’s true. I’ve been looking for this thing since I was in my twenties. Almost gave up on it a few times too but, well, here we are.”
“Here we are.” Professor Clepsiphron leaned back slightly in his chair. “And yet, anybody who has ever heard of the Great Robin Fowles, Antiquity Hunter, might think the Polytropos just another in a long line of rare discoveries. Neither special nor magical.”
Robin hmphed, leaned back in his cheap metal chair and took a long look at the hallowed white stones of the Acropolis in the distance.
“That’s because people only care about silver and gold,” Robin said, pinching his shirt and wafting hot air onto his gleaming skin. “The Polytropos has … meaning.”
Fowles took a drink of beer to punctuate his last point. When he placed the bottle back on the table he saw that one of the other customers at the bar was standing at the Professor’s side. The man was in his mid-thirties, wore dirty overalls and glared at the Professor like they’d met before on much less friendly terms. He was drunk and he waved his pointed finger as he swayed in his concrete-caked boots. Robin had the sensation that the man was avoiding looking at the Hermes Polytropos, directing whatever anger and fear of the object he had towards the Professor instead. Robin spoke no Greek but the cadence of a drunk’s tirade is part of a universal language and, when it had come to an end, Robin looked at the Professor, who answered the man with a single word.
The Professor’s voice changed when he spoke his native language, became softer, more musical, and the effect on the drunk was immediate. His bravado wilted before Robin’s eyes and one of the other clients took their humbled friend by the shoulder and ushered him back to their table, casting disapproving looks back in the Professor’s direction.
“What did you say to him?” Robin asked.
“We’ve met before, a long time ago. He was also disappointed with my … assessment.”
Robin looked around the terrace. The oppressive heat of Greek summer painted the distant rooftops in a shimmering haze. Taking in the tables for the first time, Fowles noticed that little plates of gleaming olives went untouched, and all the men seemed to take turns casting furtive scowls at Fowles and the Professor.
“Seems like you’ve got quite the reputation here.”
“The Hermes Polytropos — the Wily, Many-Faced Hermes — has such an effect on people. I’ve had dealings with many men in my time and although I always act honestly and truthfully, they have not always appreciated the outcome of our interactions. Some men ask you for a cigarette and end up wanting the shirt off your back.”
“Well, you won’t find me asking for that.”
“Mr Fowles,” the impeccably dressed Professor leaned slightly to the side to look at Robin’s unwashed clothes, “in your case I would gladly give it! But do not let their fates disturb our conversation, tell me again” the Professor looked straight into Robin’s eyes, “how did you come to own this … curio.”
Robin felt incapable of looking anywhere other than the Professor’s eyes. Robin had put a lot thought into how this question would play out. Normally, in his fantasising, it was a beautiful journalist asking it and he would charm her with his adventures before she inevitably took him back to her place for one forgettable adventure more.
He felt the familiar brash raconteur inside him begin to wind up, like an automaton ready to complete its only task. But then the whirring gears stopped. Stories of daring escapes, bloody boobytraps and cobweb-draped cavernous tombs dissipated like fog before his eyes and he found himself not entertaining a listener but being truthful – really truthful – for the first time in as long as he could remember.
“It … it was at university. I was reading a 5th century travelogue when I discovered a brief mention of the Hermes Polytropos and how it had magical qualities that gave its owner whatever he desired.”
“Well,” the Professor crossed his thin, linen-covered legs and smiled warmly at Robin, “that’s certainly what the stories say. Though I’ve always found that fate is often the name we curse or praise after all of our cards have been played.”
“Maybe but when I read that, the itchy-footed 20-year-old knew he needed this statue. Fame and fortune were right there in front of me, all I needed to do was reach out and take it. So, I booked the two cheapest tickets for Crete I could find and we set off the following week.”
“Two tickets? Who was your mysterious companion?”
“Diana … my ex.”
Robin shook his head, his reverie cut short. He hadn’t even thought about Diana for … how many years? And now, at a stranger’s question, he’d conjured up her name with all the affection and warmth it used to have when he wore it on his lips every day.
He blinked and looked around. The bar was completely quiet now, except for the drone of the street below the terrace. The Professor leaned forward and urged Robin to continue and Robin found himself unable to do anything else.
“We took the overnight ferry to Crete and laughed as the waves rocked our cabin while we were trying to make love. Once in Crete, we followed the ancient travelogue word-for-word up the central mountain ridge and, to our amazement, came across the very cave it mentioned. We went inside, our hearts were pounding from the walk and the excitement but, when we cleared the debris, it wasn’t the Hermes Polytropos we found but a statue of Aphrodite instead.”
“Ah yes, the Aphrodite Praxis!” The professor leaned forward in his seat, more interested than he had been the entire time he’d been in the bar, “I read about your discovery. I think I remember the photograph of you and this Diana in the article, too. She was very beautiful.”
“Yes, she was,” Robin stared at the droplets on his bottle, “there was a moment on Crete were the sun set behind her. Her long, curly hair looked almost purple in the light and her eyes, Christ those enormous brown eyes lit up and she looked like some Byzantine goddess nobody had ever heard the name of.”
“Nobody, except you.”
The Professor leaned in closer again and, as he did, the Hermes Polytropos moved with him. Not perceptibly, it was more like the memory of a movement. The men at the table nearby began to get restless. They exchanged muffled angry words across the serviette dispensers.
“After that, TV threw money at us for interviews, and we took it and threw it right back into travelling and hunting down the Polytropos. We followed every lead, dined with Russian Oligarchs and Yemeni smugglers. We rescued more stolen antiquities and filled more museum cabinet cases than anyone in history and, I swear to you, we did it all laughing.
“We were two kids, detached from the world of “have to’s” and “really should’s” with nothing but the horizon to aim for. And all the while I kept looking for the Hermes Polytropos and every time I came close we’d be pulled in another direction, towards some new artefact or adventure. It was the best time of my life. The best … damn … time …”
Robin suddenly felt himself staring at the little pudgy statue on the table. His eyes glazed and then he noticed the little head begin to turn. It looked more like a glitch in his vision at first but after a heartbeat it was undeniable. This inanimate lump of millennia-old clay was moving like a child’s toy. Unable to help himself, Robin let slip a surprised laugh.
All of a sudden, an empty glass of ouzo slammed onto the table nearby and all three of the men sitting there stood up. The rest of the bar took notice and one or two of them joined the men in crowding Robin’s table. The men converged on the Professor but, without taking his eyes off Robin’s, he raised a hand with the speed of a fencer and everybody in the bar froze still.
Robin noticed none of this, transfixed as he was by the small spinning head of the Hermes Polytropos, which now reminded him of a Victorian zoetrope with a mystical moving image at its centre. He looked through the stone face and watched the moment when Diana left his life. They were in their early thirties, now and she wanted children. Robin couldn’t understand why she would give up their lives of adventure, why she’d give up the chase.
“But what about the horizon?” He’d said and with tears in her eyes she put a hand on his cheek and spoke words that left a scar on his heart.
“The horizon,” she said, “like tomorrow … it never comes.”
He watched through the Hermes Polytropos as she left him. He watched himself drink his way to obliteration in the hotel bar in Marrakesh. He shook his head in disbelief and tears rolled back into his hair as he threw his head back to drink some more. He wanted to be free with her, but she just wanted something different.
“Look at the Hermes Polytropos Robin,” the professor’s voice came from far away, “Look through the detritus of your life, the fog that blinds us all, look for what you’ve missed.”
The imagery changed then, and he saw his name up in lights at some speech or inauguration he couldn’t remember. He saw himself holding The Just Judges by Jan van Eyck in front of the triptych it was stolen from in Ghent, an applauding crowd all around him, clapping a man with no life in his eyes.
The Polytropos’s head began spinning left and right, its many eyes like golden suns blazed as the image behind them jumped to moments in time. The Louvre, the Hague, a hundred Egyptian tombs and a dozen lost temples in Asia. Guatemalan rainforests unveiled their lost civilisations and he stood before them feeling nothing of the excitement, the thrill he’d felt before. He felt free but as free as a frozen corpse floating in endless space. No needs. No obligations. No responsibilities. Nothing.
The whirring head began to make him feel sick and he reached out, through the haze of moments from his life spinning before him, and touched the statue’s head. Suddenly, it stopped. The world stopped. In fact, the only thing moving in the whole universe were Robin Fowles and the man who called himself Clepsiphron. Robin blinked hard, trying to sober himself up somehow but knew he wasn’t drunk.
“Choice.” The Professor’s voice sounded like it came through water. “Choice is our most powerful weapon in this world, and yet, it is one we surrender willingly. We surrender it to the wishes of others, to the commands of authority and to our own foolish egos that lie to us. Only you can take control over the pantomime of your life, only you can make that choice. But to do so, you must acknowledge the ghosts of your past. You must look for the fork in the road where you chose poorly and ask yourself if you stand by your decision.”
The statue began to move again. Slowly at first, then it slipped out from between Robin’s fingers and began moving faster and faster. Robin clenched his whole hand around it and he felt the coarse ceramic grind the skin away from his palms. He screamed but the hot, paralysed air swallowed his voice whole.
Blood began to drip from the torn edges of his hand and he gripped his clenched fist with his other hand. The statue’s shoulders became scarlet flecked with the tattered pieces of his skin but Robin did not let go. He could feel all those moments of loneliness in the wilderness, all those bitter awards and unclaimed honours that had pocked his life ever since … ever since … and then the statue stopped again.
He took his hands away and watched as the zoetrope imagery returned. Red mist emerged around the spinning face of the Hermes Polytropos. Flickering figures danced in jolting movements and then he saw himself. He was wearing a white linen shirt just like the Professor’s and he was speaking on the phone. Except, he barely recognised this man. This man was older and looked more tired than Robin had ever felt. And there was a bandage on his hand.
The paralysed men on the roof terrace were frozen in varying states of aggression. Some were just standing from their tables, others had bottles held upside down like batons. There was a sense of justice in their moves and, looking up from the statue, Robin understood it. He saw that they had all put their faith in fate and been short-changed. Their bodies were no longer their own but their eyes — bright with pain and longing — they were all fixed on the bloody statue in front of Robin. A statue they knew well.
Robin looked across at the professor and, with a strange twisting of his fingers, the men in the bar began moving backwards towards their chairs. The professor dismissed them all with a flick of his wrist as if he had given them a chance once and they had failed. His eyes were merciless and they watched Robin without blinking.
Robin could see the choices in his life spread out in front of him like a vast tapestry of yet-untwined threads. He was looking at the unfulfilled tapestry of the Moirai and the infinite possibilities they could weave. He could weave with his words, with his choices. The vast weight of it terrified him and he found himself wishing for a guide, some friendly Virgil to help him make the right choice and ensure that the threads weaved an image of happiness.
Just then a new figure emerged from the darkness of the doorway. She had thick black hair with flecks of silver through it and eyes like a Byzantine goddess. Robin looked at her and the years, the artefacts, the awards, the adventures all paled in comparison. There was no way of changing the past but he knew this was a nexus point in his future. He knew the Taberna Arcadia was the loom on which his fate would be woven … on which he would weave it.
He stood up, leaving the professor and the most valuable statue he’d ever found on the table behind him, unsupervised.
“Diana?” He said, his eyes flitting in amazement around her face and hair.
“It’s been a long time, Robin.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came because you called. Don’t you remember?”
“Yes. You called me three days ago. You said that you’d found the last thing you wanted to find without me. I thought it was a little corny but, after the divorce and Irene going to university, well I found myself with a little time for adventure and I figured ‘Why the hell not’? So, here I am.”
“Here you are,” Robin said and there were tears in his eyes.
“So, where is it?”
“The thing you wanted to show me?”
Robin leaned down and took her hands in his, terrified that if he stopped looking at her she would disappear like the zoetrope image in the statue. He turned towards the table and it was empty. He looked around the bar and all the men there, all those sorry victims of what they believed was fate, were sitting at their tables chatting like nothing had happened.
“What’ve you done to your hand?!”
Robin stopped looking around the bar for a moment and looked at his hand. There was a fresh bandage around the palm and it matched the clean white linen shirt sleeve that came up to his wrist.
“Oh it’s just a scratch.”
“You need to be more careful. Nice shirt, by the way.”
Robin looked down at the perfectly-fitted, pristine white shirt he was wearing.
“Thanks, it was a gift from a Professor … I think. He’s taught me quite a lot.”
“I see that. So, where’s this statue you wanted me to see?”
Without taking his eyes off hers, without looking for the statue or case or professor, Robin just smiled and rubbed her hands softly.
“Oh … it’s not important. Let’s go and get something to eat.”